MADISON, Miss.Mike Upton went out to dinner with his sister and the experience literally changed the way he does business.
After finding out his sister had booked the dinner reservation online, it struck him how that was a big convenience for patrons.
We are always trying to work for the next convenient thing for the customers, said Mr. Upton, president of Madison-based Upton Tire Pros. You don't have to call anybody; you don't have to wait for them to call you back.
Mr. Upton said a local developer had approached him about using text messages to customers for service reminders, etc., so the dealer called to ask if a system of online appointments could be designed for Upton Tire's website. It took about three months to get the site to get up and running.
Mr. Upton said he launched online appointments around October 2011.
As would be expected, it was slow to start because customers just really weren't used to that, he said, but we heavily promoted it on our website.
Every customer who came in the door was toldparticularly if they had been waitingthat next time they can book an appointment online.
They see the available times and they can make it at their convenience, Mr. Upton told Tire Business.
Plus, we offered them a $10 coupon if they did that.
He said from there it's just taken completely off and the customers just absolutely love it.
Mr. Upton said the stores originally guaranteed customers who booked online appointments could get in within 10 minutes, but that quickly had to be shut down. There simply were too many people coming in. The guarantee was then changed so the customer would be next up.
He said he very rarely gets any complaints about the system not working.
Originally, the shops did not offer online appointments for Saturdays because, according to Mr. Upton, they were nervous it would be too difficult to manage on a busy day with shortened hours. Later, it was decided to try it and there have not been any issues.
To promote its online scheduling, Upton Tire used its website, telling customers that next time, make an appointment; save time, save money, Mr. Upton said.
He also promoted the service in some radio ads and urged employees to tell customers about the online option.
Probably our worst enemy was ourselves, Mr. Upton said, and I think that's true about anybody in this industry; you're afraid we're going to make somebody mad.
The optimal way to launch such a service, he explained, is to build a system around it. Upton Tire uses color-coded service tickets. Online appointments are bright lime green, so everybody with an appointment is put on a scheduling board. Mr. Upton said it has worked out well for the dealership's staff.
Initially, employees feared a customer with an online appointment would come in two minutes after another patron already waiting for service, upsetting the first customer.
Mr. Upton said the solution is to have a conversation with the first customer explaining the other person had an appointment. So far, the dealership has had no complaints about it.
Another key element for the online appointments, he noted, is to set a guide.
We only take four appointments an hour, so we take one every 15 minutes, thus not overcrowding service bays for people who just drop in, Mr. Upton said.
Last year, Upton Tire took in a total of about 16,000 appointments at its four stores in Mississippi: Brandon, Jackson, Flowood and Madison.
With that number and the company's average ticket sale at about $160, that works out to revenue of a little less than $2 million.
Mr. Upton admitted that while some of these customers likely would have come in anyway, we sure made it more convenient for them.
One of the biggest benefits of online scheduling, he added, is that customers can set up appointments whenever it is convenient for them.
I can see appointments coming in at 2 o'clock in the morning, so it's very convenient for our customers, he said. They can make it in their office, on their phone, on their computer, at home, at night, at day, on the holiday, anytime.
At one point, Mr. Upton said, he was concerned the dealership had over-promoted the online appointments, leading customers to think they could only book service online. He also noticed that many mornings the shop typically had 20-40 service tickets waiting, but after launching online scheduling, the numbers seemed to drop.
Looking back to the previous year, he realized our car count for that store was almost even to the year before.
So instead of jamming it up, people were coming in when they wanted to. We didn't lose car count; we're just spreading them out better.
He said he hears from customers almost every day about how much they love making appointments online, with both younger and older demographics alike using online appointments, though it skews a bit more to younger users. He added that Upton Tire also has a mobile app that allows people to make appointments from their phones and it is being used often.
Most of our traffic is coming from mobile phones, he said.
He also pointed out that it's important to reward customers. They want that $10 off coupon. That makes them come back to it.
An added benefit with online appointments is that a business gets customer email addresses. Mr. Upton said his dealership has about 27,000 email contacts they reach out to once a week with an email blast that includes tips, information and coupons.
The online scheduling process for the customer is simple, he said, comparing it to when a person books an appointment at a spa.
They sign in and look for the service and time they want. They then select the time, store, service, etc.
If a customer wants to buy tires, Upton Tire asks for size, brand and as much as information as possible to make sure the tires are in stock.
Early on, the software for the appointments stood by itself, he said, leaving the staff to manually sync the tickets. However, Mr. Upton had the point-of-sale developer and online appointments developer combined, so now the systems work more seamlessly.
...At 12 o'clock every night the two programs sync, he said, and we come in the next morning and if that customer has ever been in the store before, (a service ticket) already is written for them.
Keeping customers coming back is a key part to any business. Allowing them to schedule appointments online is just one more way of reaching them.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6143.